Rhode Island Genealogy

In the United States, generally speaking, each state has jurisdiction over the government records that are kept regarding their inhabitants' births, marriages, deaths, divorces, land transactions, probates, health, disease, education etc. They are not responsible for private record-keeping efforts such as those done by churches, cemeteries, community groups, companies, businesses etc. The federal government oversees the taking of the national census every decade, but not of state censuses. Certain cities have also participated in early record-keeping efforts even prior to their state's commencement of such things. And then there are numerous other entities involved with keeping records; these include shipping lines, publication companies (city and county directories, and phone books), orphanages, hospitals and military organizations.

If you are researching your genealogy in Rhode Island, then this article is for you. Since all states have essentially the same basic types of federal records (census and vital or civil registration), we will devote this article to sources that are available for Rhode Island genealogy. Much of the information I give in this article comes from Val Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. This is not a complete list of sources.

Let's first look at the history of Rhode Island and how that affects its genealogy. According to Wikipedia, after Roger Williams, a theologian who was one of the first to advocate freedom of religion, separation of church and state, abolition of slavery, and equal treatment to Native Americans, was forced out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he and others founded "Providence Plantations" as a free proprietary colony. He named the original colony Providence Plantation, in recognition of agriculture as the basis of its economy, and also believing that God's grace had brought him and his followers there. Between the 1860s and the 1880s, most immigrants came from England, Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Quebec (Canada). By the end of the century, however, most immigrants came from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Rhode Island became an industrialized state which encouraged immigration and migration into cities. By 1774, the slave population of Rhode Island was nearly twice that of any other colony in New England.

The population of Rhode Island today is comprised of Irish, Italian, French Canadian, English, Hispanic, and Portuguese descendants. More recent immigrants are coming from various African countries. The largest number of inhabitants is Roman Catholic, with Episcopalians being the largest Protestant group. Knowing this background will help you with your genealogy in Rhode Island.

Locating church records for your Rhode Island genealogy is made easier knowing that the Newport Historical Society in Newport contains records for Quakers, Congregationalists and Baptists, that the Moses Brown School in Providence has Quaker records, and that the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence has records for Baptists, Unitarians, Congregationalists and Quakers. Roman Catholic records are often still in the hands of the parish priest, although some have been microfilmed. Be sure to check the card catalog of the Family History Library at www.familysearch.org.

Original customs passenger lists from 1820-1875 are available for Newport. The National Archives has immigration passenger lists for Providence from mid-1911 to mid-1943. Microfilmed indexes for Providence are also available from the National Archives. Check Footnote.com to see if they are available online. Along with immigration records, you will want to check naturalization records for your Rhode Island genealogy. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) photocopied and indexed pre-1906 naturalization records. These cards usually contain information such as the place and date of birth and arrival in the United States, residence, and sometimes the name of the ship and occupation. Unfortunately, sometimes only the indexes have survived or are available online.

In researching your Rhode Island genealogy, you will more than likely be using some immigration and church records. This article should give you some ideas on how to proceed in these records.

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